Well, friends, Romans, and others who get the idea...
I’ve shamefully neglected this blog for weeks, in part because I’ve been low on material, in other part because I’ve been downed this winter by one bug after another and grounded from returning to Italy to collect more content.
Back in December, I’d flown with an earache that ended up causing all kinds of problems — blocked ear, hearing and sinus trouble, tinnitus, pain. The ENT tsk-tsked that nobody should fly with an earache and that I in particular must be careful due to my freakishly small eustachian tubes.
In late March, I at last headed back to pick up where I’d left off on my blighted December trip, flying into Rome and spending the night there, as I usually do. This time, I boarded with what I thought was the tail end of an upper respiratory virus sans earache, so figured I was okay. I figured wrong. My cough became asthmatic on the plane and my ears went berserk again. On the descent into Fiumicino, I really started to think my right eardrum might burst (a bugaboo the ENT doc had put in my ear, so to speak), and must have looked a little unhinged as I spent the last hour of the flight doing nothing but swallowing hard and snapping my jaw open to relieve the pressure, yanking my ears around, and throwing nasal spray into my sinuses. My only comfort was that others, too, were hacking and poking at their ears during our descent. I do wonder if maybe the cabin pressure was a little off.
I guess I say all of this as a cautionary tale: Sometimes, you really should think twice about getting yourself trapped above the clouds while you’re under the weather.
By the time we landed, I was desperate to get off that plane. Had I felt better, I would have made for the throats of fellow passengers who blithely ignored the flight attendants’ repeated requests to sit down until we parked at the gate, thereby delaying our arrival at the gate. (Not long ago, I was seated on a flight into Rome next to a lovely 90-something, Italian-born, retired MD named Sam who had some choice and hilarious words for his compatriots’ behavior on planes, but that’s a story for another day.)
I arrived to a beautiful first day of spring in Rome, notwithstanding I did so in foul humor, muttering to myself about whether or not I even liked Italians anymore. (I do.) I stumbled into the Hotel Lunetta at the Campo de’ Fiori feeling low —punchy, congested, and nauseated.
Now, lend me your palates.
I really did need to recover for a few hours. Eventually, though, the sunlight and siren song of voices outside rallied me and I hit the streets. FOMO is a powerful motivator.
Because I’ve moved to a plant-based diet in recent years, I thought I’d devote a post to some vegan options on offer in Rome these days.
It might surprise some to hear that Italy is no stranger to veganism and is even friendly to it. In fact, there are options all over, even where you least expect them. Vegan variations on old standards aren’t always advertised, but are there for the asking. One anecdote-in-point: At a hotel in Parma last year— smack-dab in the middle of cheese and charcuterie country — I was having my “included” breakfast when the waitress approached with the requisite basket of cornetti, the Italian answer to croissants. Not wanting to waste it, I headed her off with a “No, thanks. I’m vegan.” She replied with a “So am I!” and returned with a basket of vegan cornetti.
On my previous overnight in Rome, I'd hit Romeow, a vegan cafe/restaurant and cat-socializing spot in the Ostia quarter where in the morning you're welcome to settle in for a while to nurse your coffee and read. Come lunch- or dinner-time, the place is so popular you do have to make a reservation to ensure your seat. I did, and the food was good (though I can’t remember now what's on that plate).
There are several newfangled spots dedicated exclusively to vegan gelato and baked goods. I'd particularly wanted to try the gelato and chocolates at Grezzo, a vegan sweets shop in the hip Monti neighborhood. But when I ran over the following day before catching a coach to Abruzzo, I found them still closed at 11 a.m. Monti is a great neighborhood for shopping and food, but I guess one drawback of the hipsters is they’re not early risers.
Well, never mind. These are a few treats I did get my mitts on from spots that aren’t vegan-only but, on purpose or not, have plant-based options:
1) Granita al caffe at Tazza d’Oro, a few steps from the Pantheon. Delish. Granita is an icy treat that comes in a number of flavors. In summer, granita al limone is especially refreshing, as long as it’s not one of those pre-fab, syrupy ones. You want the kind that’s truly made with tiny beads of ice.
2) Pizza. Very good veg-only pizza options abound. Two of my favorites are versions with a simple tomato sauce or with potatoes and rosemary (though the avocado-and-radish-sprout at Romana on Via del Governo Vecchio ain't bad, either).
I’ve been accused on more than one occasion of dragging famished travel companions on a death march through Italian cities to find the perfect pizza or panino; I believe both plant-based eaters and nons will be delighted with what's on offer at the Forno Campo de’ Fiori (celebrated for its perfectly oiled and salted pizza bianca and now offering a vegan calzone) or at Roscioli, near but outside the Campo.
3) Cappuccino alla soia. You can get soy milk cappuccino in loads of spots in loads of cities, including at train station cafes. In Rome, Sant’ Eustachio is a fan favorite, but for me their coffee is a little too strong and bitter. (And maybe I’m unconsciously put off by the name, given my aforementioned freakishly small eustachian tubes.) The fact that you can now get your coffee “to go” also is bittersweet. It wasn’t long ago that such an idea would have been laughable in Italy.
4) The (un)holy grail: penne all’arrabbiata, Roman-style — one of the best styles, to my mind. This “accidentally vegan” dish is good almost anywhere in Rome, including at the little outdoor tables at big attractions like the Piazza Navona, Spanish Steps, and Pantheon.
5) Gelato. In fact, you can get vegan gelato all over Rome, and it's fantastic and incredibly creamy. Duck into any of the ubiquitous gelaterie and ask; you’re likely to find some options in fruit flavors —banana, melon, berries, strawberry — along with an out-of-this-world cioccolato fondente. The gent at Gelateria Valentino near the Trevi Fountain was good enough to give me a sample of the banana in addition to my cup of frutti di bosco. Never before was I a fan of fruit-flavored ice cream, and never before did I know what I was missing!